It is a century since Edgar Rice Burroughs’s iconic creation appeared in print. Richard Fitzpatrick looks at the evolution of oneof the most famous fictional characters of our times
TARZAN, “big pecs, small vocabulary”, as someone once put it, is 100 years old this year. He’s carved a considerable corner in our culture in the intervening period, as familiar to us as Dr Frankenstein’s Monster and other comic-book superheroes like Batman and Superman.
Perhaps nothing defines Tarzan as much, though, as his ululating call, “the bull ape’s savage roar of victory”, aped, as it were, by generations of breast-beating young boys (and the odd girl). “What a frightful sound! ... I shudder at the mere thought of it. Do not tell me that human throat voiced hideous and fearsome shriek,” wrote Edgar Rice Burroughs histrionically.
Born in 1875 in Chicago, Burroughs was a fascinating character and a canny businessman. He began serialising Tarzan of the Apes, which has never been out of print, in a pulp fiction magazine, The All-Story, in 1912, and later franchised the Tarzan brand in movies, comics and radio.
The neighbourhood which sprung up around his ranch in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles was called Tarzana in 1927, as it still is to this day. Burroughs had taken up residency in Hawaii by the time of the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941.
Despite his vast wealth, he worked as a war correspondent during the Second World War, almost 50 years after he had been discharged from the US Cavalry owing to a heart condition.
He died of a heart attack in 1950.
Burroughs penned 27 Tarzan books, which drew the ire of Rudyard Kipling, who complained that Burroughs had plagiarised his late 19th century collection of stories, The Jungle Book, “to find out how bad a book he could write and get away with”.
The novels tell the story of John Clayton, born to a pair of shipwrecked English aristocrats, who wash up on the west coast of Africa. His parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, die during his infancy; his father is killed by one of the apes who raise him, the Mangani “great apes”, a species unknown to zoologists.
The apes christen him ‘Tarzan’, which is “white skin” in ape language, the first clue towards the author’s racist tendencies.
White, English Tarzan thrives in the jungle because of “that confidence and resourcefulness which were the badges of his superior being”.
The first fellow humans Tarzan meets are black and cannibals. One of them kills the female ape that raised him, which prompts him to murder in revenge, although his “hereditary instinct” prevents him from cannibalising the dead, black native. The chapter where he meets Jane, who is a member of a marooned party of whites, is entitled “His own kind”.
Tarzan’s outsider status is probably what makes him so compelling. He is beyond civilisation — king of the apes, yet aware, somehow, that he is not one of them. “My mother was an ape,” he says. “I never knew who my father was.”
He’s also equivocal about violence, a useful philosophical bearing in the jungle.
“He joyed in killing,” wrote Burroughs, “and that he killed with a joyous laugh upon his handsome lips betokened no innate cruelty. He killed for food most often, but being a man he sometimes killed for pleasure.”
As the Tarzan books progress, their hero is landed in a Pythonesque series of adventures, involving, among others, baddie Germans, Russians, Ant-Men, dinosaurs, medieval knights and folk from the lost city of Atlantis. At one stage, he even enlists in the RAF, and gets shot down over Sumatra where he uses all his jungle wiles to put down a legion of Japanese soldiers.
The Tarzan films, and there are over 90 screen versions, introduce all manner of corruptions. Cheetah, his noble companion, for example, never appeared in the Tarzan books, although the chimpanzee star spawned a critically acclaimed, if libellous celebrity memoir a few years ago. Entitled Me Cheetah, it satirised Hollywood’s golden age, skewering icons such as Rex Harrison.
The actor Ian Holm does the Henry Higgins for Tarzan, teaching him to speak, in possibly the most watchable (no great claim) of the Tarzan films, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which came out in 1984.
These days Tarzan has been re-branded as a conservationist, “the world’s first eco warrior”. Instead of fighting cannibal tribes, he tussles with rebel guerrillas. There are several Tarzan films in production as well as a chain of “re-booted” novels, including one that Faber is due to bring out shortly. It seems Tarzan’s yodel will never end.
WEISSMULLER WAS LORD OF THE JUNGLE
Johnny Weissmuller, the most famous of the actors to play Tarzan, was christened Peter. Johnny was his older brother’s name. The Tarzan actor was born in Transylvania in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire (in what is now part of Romania) in 1904 and immigrated to the United States aged seven months.
He kept his birthplace a secret all his life; even his obituaries in 1984 listed his birthplace as Windber, Pennsylvania. He assumed his brother’s identity so that he could compete for the United States in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. The press at the time, including the New York Times, investigated his lineage but failed to rumble him, concluding, as a headline in the Chicago Tribune put it: “Can’t bar Weiss from Olympics; was born here”.
He went on to win five Olympic gold medals in swimming, one of five Tarzan actors to win Olympic medals. He also married five times, and starred in 12 Tarzan films from 1932 to 1948, being famous for uttering the line, “Me Tarzan, You Jane“; his distinctive Tarzan yell (a recording of which was played three times, at his request, as his coffin was lowered into the ground); and as one of the cut-out faces (right behind Ringo Starr) on the cover of The Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band.
Weissmuller’s career in Hollywood dwindled after his turns as Tarzan. He worked as a greeter in Las Vegas in the 1970s, although he never lost the ingenuity that made him King of the Apes. According to the Complete Book of the Olympics, his golf party was seized by rebel soldiers in Cuba while playing in a celebrity golf tournament in 1958. Weissmuller unarmed the attackers, however, by roaring his trademark Tarzan yell, which caused them to jump up and down in delight: “Tarzan! Welcome to Cuba!”
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